The civil war in Syria has raged for over two years. In that time President Bashir al Assad has killed roughly 100,000 people. Earlier this year, as the slaughter escalated, President Obama said that it would be a “red line” if Assad used chemical weapons on his people. This spring there were some inconclusive reports that chemical weapons were used, but there was never confirmation or clear proof that they were intentionally used by Assad against his own people. Then, on August 21, there was another chemical weapon attack. This one was in the suburbs of Damascus, and there were numerous eye witness accounts and plenty of dramatic and horrific news videos showing people in death-throws from gas poisoning. This time there was abundant proof of a gas attack, and pretty clear evidence that Assad had ordered the attacks.
President Obama said that he would have no choice but respond to this. Initially he indicated that he would attack without Congressional approval. The initial reports were that Obama planned to hit targets in Syria, most likely with long range cruise missiles. The use of cruise missiles would keep American pilots out of harm’s way. Cruise missiles are also extremely precise, in many cases more precise than bombs or missiles dropped from planes. The list of potential targets included chemical weapon stockpiles, delivery systems, and command and control systems (which may or may not be a euphemism for attempting to take out Assad.)
Congress responded very unfavorably to this plan of action.
I do not think President Obama has the authority to unilaterally attack targets in Syria. The President, as Commander in Chief, clearly has the authority to engage in military action to protect the nation, and doesn’t need Congressional authority to do so. There is a long history of this, it has been done by Presidents of both parties, and has been supported by politicians from both parties. It is also clear that the Constitution says that Congress has the authority to declare war. This raised a question: is a limited military engagement an act of war? Would it be an act of war for the President to attack Syria? The answer, I think, depends upon the nature of the attack. Clearly invading the country, landing the Marines on the Mediterranean coast, would be an act of war. But is it an act of war to bomb select targets with cruise missiles? Certainly long range weapons are the tools of war, but this doesn’t mean that their every use is an act of war. In this case I don’t think that launching cruise missiles into Syria is an act of war (though clearly some Syrians would disagree). It is certainly a hostile act, but it is not much different than launching a missile from a drone. And Congress has not objected to the use of drones, so Congress doesn’t seem to think their use is an act of war.
The problem I have with this plan is that I see no direct threat to the United States. The President can clearly act unilaterally, but only when there is some cognizable threat to the nation. The President and his advisers have noted that if Assad is not punished it makes it more likely that he will use chemical weapons again (that is probably true), it makes it more likely that other countries will use chemical weapons (that is possibly true, but I doubt the probability), and it makes it possible that these weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists (this doesn’t seem very likely). So I see no direct threat to the nation that would warrant the immediate and unilateral action by the President.
The other problem that I have with the idea of limited cruise missile strikes against the Assad regime is doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose, or well defined results. If the attacks are very limited they will have very little impact. They will be little more than a slap on the wrist, and may make the U.S. look weak. Larger attacks would have a greater impact, but also a greater potential for collateral damage and death to civilians. Larger attacks could also have the effect of changing the balance of power in the civil war. We have said that we don’t want to get involved, or take sides, and there are good reasons for this. Chief among them is that one of the strongest rebel groups is comprised of Islamic religious warriors. Do we really want to risk allowing a group of militant Islamists to take over? I don’t think so.
But now the President has taken his case to Congress. He has decided not to act unilaterally, and instead has asked Congress for permission to act. Congress has the power to declare war. Congress could, if it so chooses, declare war on any nation and for any reason. There is no necessity that the nation be in danger. The standard is national interest, not immediate national safety.
This, in my mind, changes the analysis. Congress should determine whether attacking Assad is in the national interest, and not whether it is necessary to safeguard the nation. It may be in the national interest to be able to project a credible threat to rouge nations. It may be in the national interest to be seen as honoring our word. While it may not be a direct threat to the U.S. when other nations use chemical weapons on their own people, it may be in the national interest to deter the further spread of chemical weapons. Congress may also decide that it does want Assad removed from power. It may be in the long term interest of the nation to remove him, and hope for the best with a new government. Removing Assad may stabilize the region, but it also may not. Removing Assad may increase the security of Israel, but it also may not. The problem is that I have not heard a clear discussion of all of the potential possibilities.
I wish I could say this is an easy choice, but it isn’t. On balance I am not inclined to support the use of force against Syria because I don’t see the immediate danger or how it benefits the national interest, either in the long or short term. But I am deeply concerned about the issue, and the stability of the region, and I would be willing to listen to the President’s evidence and arguments. If he is able to clearly articulate how this is in the national interest, or if he can show some strong evidence of the impending spread of chemical weapons in the region, and can show some serious long range plan for what happens if Assad is overthrown, and that it may produce results favorable to the U.S. or our allies in the region, then I might support the use of force against Syria.